Athens Airport, accessible airport transfer, the resort, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Nafplion, Athens, Olympia, Loutraki, Corinth, Delphi, sailing cruise
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By James Glasbergen
Greece has long had a reputation for being inaccessible to travelers in wheelchairs. Until recently, wheelchair users have been deterred by a lack of accessible services and inaccessible attractions. Fortunately, this is starting to change. The 2004 Summer Olympics and the ensuing Paralympics forced a lot of change in the country in terms of attitudes and access. Ancient sites that have long been inaccessible have improved their access drastically, and now there is a place where you can stay that is designed specifically for disabled travelers. World On Wheelz is proud to work with a resort near Corinth that offers more than just accessible accommodations. Aside from the five units built specifically to meet the needs of people with disabilities, we arrange accessible airport transfers, medical rentals, van/car rentals, and tours to the major sites. Of course, it isn’t easy convincing people that they can enjoy an accessible trip to Greece, especially people in electric wheelchairs. I was quite skeptical myself, so I decided to take a 10-day trip over there to find out first hand.
The flight from Toronto to Athens was the longest flight I have ever been on. It was close to 12 hours total (slightly more on the way back) – an hour from Toronto to Montreal, over an hour on the ground in Montreal picking up passengers and refuelling, and another 9 hours nonstop to Athens. It is about the longest stretch of time I ever intend to spend in one plane seat. It is also probably the only time I will ever pay for a first class ticket. However, twelve hours would be a terribly long time to spend in an economy seat, especially for a long person like me. Fortunately, we had no flight delays and the flights were incredibly smooth. In fact, the seat belt light never came on once for turbulence on the flight there, which I think was a first for me on a flight and quite surprising given the length of the flight.
Getting off of the plane in Athens was an interesting experience. As usual, I was the last one off the plane. While all of the other passengers deplaned via a jetway, we exited through a door on the opposite side of the plane. There was a huge elevator that raised up to the door. This elevator was actually a motorized vehicle. Once they wheeled me inside the elevator on the aisle chair, they transferred me into a manual wheelchair. Then the elevator lowered a little and we were driven in the elevator across the airport to the baggage claim. Once at the baggage claim, we were escorted to my electric wheelchair where they helped transfer me back into my chair.
Of course, a flight would not be a flight without some sort of drama regarding my wheelchair. Amazingly, the whole chair arrived in Athens without any damage or missing parts. However, after the airport men who helped transfer me into my wheelchair left, we noticed that I was missing 2 parts: a wooden board that I use to protect my seat, and a piece that holds my battery in my wheelchair. We had them both sitting on the floor beside my chair, and then all of a sudden they were gone. We think the airport men took them along by accident when they took the airport wheelchair. The board was no loss at all, but the missing piece that held my battery in place was a pain in the neck for the next 2 weeks, not to mention it cost me $139 to replace when I got home. I thought about filing a missing item report with the airline, but the truth is it was not the airline’s fault. The piece was sitting on the ground beside us and someone walked off with it.
We prearranged through the resort to have an accessible transfer from the airport to the resort. We were met near the baggage claim by our driver, who had an accessible taxi waiting for us by the curb. It was a decent sized van with a hydraulic lift on the back and plenty of room for our luggage inside. There were also tie-downs inside for my wheelchair. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of head room for a tall person in a wheelchair, so it was a little uncomfortable. I actually had to sit with my head tilted sideways for the entire ride to avoid bumping my head on the roof.
The drive from Athens airport to the resort took about an hour and a half. The resort is located in Skaloma, about 20 minutes from Loutraki and 30 minutes from Corinth. After a 12-hour flight and a 1.5-hour drive, we were happy to finally arrive at the resort. We were met by the owner, who immediately showed us to our apartment. There was an accessible bedroom on the main floor (, ) and a non-accessible room on the upper floor (). I was happy to find the Hoyer lift that we rented waiting in my bedroom (). I'm not sure what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent electric Invacare lift. Our apartment also had a kitchen (), a living room (, ), and a very accessible washroom that included a roll-in shower (, ). We also had an accessible balcony (, , , ) that offered a great view of the garden and the Gulf of Corinth ().
The resort itself consists of five apartments, all specially designed for wheelchair access. There are two 1-bedroom apartments, two 2-bedroom apartments, and a group apartment for up to 8 people. There is also a nice central barbecue area for those who want to have a barbecue. For those who do not want to cook, there is a free delivery service from the local tavern. Sirens also offers a half or full board option, so guests can enjoy one or two meals in the comfort of their apartment everyday. The beach at the resort is not large, but it offers a great view of Loutraki and Corinth across the Gulf. There is a patio area with sun umbrellas and a wheelchair ramp leading into the water. The owner has a sea-wheelchair that people can use to go into the water.
We took six different day excursions on our 10-day stay in Greece. Our first trip was to the ancient cities of of Epidaurus, Mycenae, and Nafplion. Our driver picked us up at the resort at 10 a.m. for the 1.5 hour trip to Mycenae. We had a medium-sized sightseeing bus that had 15 or 20 seats () and room for a wheelchair user to sit. There was a hydraulic lift at the back that allowed me to board (). The tie-down system was not very good. They just had 2 big clamps, so I ended up bringing some rope along for extra support, which worked quite well. We had this same vehicle for all six of our day trips (, , ). We also had the same driver every day, a fun guy named Tasos.
One thing we learned quickly on our excursions is that Greece is a very mountainous country. A lot of the roads we traveled were winding single lane roads with no guard rails, and they were often quite bumpy. I was fortunate that my friend brought some Gravol along because I felt pretty rough after the ride home from the airport and then again after the first day trip. After that first day tour, I made sure to take one before every road trip...it did wonders!
Our first stop was in Mycenae, where we met up with a private guide who was waiting to give us a short tour. We started off at the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae, located next to the ancient acropolis of Mycenae. Admission to the museum was free for a wheelchair user and their attendant. This policy was the same for all the museums and archaeological attractions that we went to in Greece, including those in Epidaurus, Athens, Olympia, Corinth, and Delphi.
After a quick look at the many ancient Mycenaean artifacts in the museum in Mycenae, we walked next door to the acropolis. The word “acropolis” is translated literally as “high city” and refers to a fortified city on a hill. Most early Greek city-states were built around an acropolis where the people could seek protection in times of war. The Mycenean acropolis was only partially accessible for wheelchair users. The entrance was by way of a steep hill that had a gravel surface (). Most manual wheelchair users would probably not be able to get up that hill. I did not have much difficulty in my electric wheelchair, although I made sure to have my attendant beside me in case my chair started to slip on the gravel. I managed to get up to the Lion Gate, which was the main gate entering the city. Just inside the gate, we could peer out into the remains of Grave Circle A, a large circular area where the ancient Mycenaeans buried their royalty. From there, there was another steep ramp that led up to the top of the acropolis where most of the ruins were, but the ramp was too steep even for an electric wheelchair to go up.
Next, we made the short drive over to the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the tomb of Agamemnon because it was first thought to have been the tomb of the great Mycenaean King (which was later proven to be wrong). The tomb was not very accessible. There was a bit of a bump to get onto the walkway leading to the tomb (), and then I had to weave around and over some jagged rocks to get to the entrance of the tomb. There was another large bump at the entrance about as high as a curb. I probably could have gotten over it with a lot of assistance, but I could see inside the tomb from the entrance and it wasn't worth the effort to try to get in a little farther.
From there we made the half-hour drive from Mycenae to Epidaurus. When we arrived, we met up with the same guide and immediately walked over to the theater of Epidaurus. This large, open-air amphitheatre was built around the third century B.C. and has survived remarkably well over the centuries. In fact, it is still used for performances today. From the parking lot, there was an accessible pathway off to the side that led to the theater. The theater itself was very accessible as I was able to wheel right into the orchestra, which is where the actors performed their plays. The acoustics in the theater were amazing. From the center of the orchestra, you can drop a coin that can be heard from the very top row of the theater.
Next, we walked over to the archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, where we spent some time looking at the ancient artifacts. The museum was accessible.
On the way back, we drove through Nafplion, which once served as the capital of Greece. We made a stop at Palamidi Castle, which was not accessible at all. Once inside the castle courtyard, there were huge cobblestones everywhere (), followed by several steps to get out to most of the scenic viewpoints. So, I waited near the entrance while my friends went out and checked out the grounds. I was very surprised at the time that this stop would be included on an “accessible” tour, but I found out later that it actually was not supposed to be part of the tour. Our tour guide just decided on her own to make a quick stop there. We got back to our resort at about 8:30 that night.
The next tour we took was a day trip to Athens. Once again, we were picked up at the resort at 10 a.m. We picked up the guide in Athens, and we started off with a short city tour. Next, we went to the Archaeological Museum of Athens. The museum houses the most important collection of ancient Greek artifacts. Our guide took us for a tour of the most notable monuments and sculptures. The museum was completely accessible, and like the others, it was free for a wheelchair user and one attendant.
Next, we drove over to the Acropolis, the place I looked forward to visiting the most on the whole trip. The so-called Sacred Rock is the most famous of the Greek acropolises, known for its famous temples. It was only 2 years ago that an elevator was installed enabling wheelchair users to visit the ancient site for the first time. From the parking lot, there was a short walk up the side of the hill to get to the main entrance. The path was cobblestone, but it was easy to wheel over and the slope was not very steep (). Once at the main gate, we talked to a security guard who escorted me through a different entrance than the one that everybody else uses. There was an accessible pathway () that went along the northern side of the acropolis to the elevator, which was quite a sight. There was a key-operated stair lift which took me up a flight of stairs containing about 30 steps, followed by the elevator that scaled along the northern wall to the very top (, , , , , , ). It did not look like the most trustworthy equipment at first sight, but it did the job.
We got out of the elevator at the top in front of the Erechtheion. Our guide then proceeded to give us a short tour of the Acropolis. From the Erechtheion, we walked over to the side of the Parthenon. Both temples were built under the leadership of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens (5th century B.C.). The Erechtheion was named in honor of the early Athenian king Erechtheus, while the Parthenon—the most famous building remaining from ancient Greece—was dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). The guide pointed out a number of interesting things about the different buildings, which was great, but when she was done she asked us if we wanted to spend about 10 or 15 minutes on our own before returning to the van. I wanted to spend a lot more than 15 minutes on my own at the Acropolis! We agreed on 20 minutes, and then we raced around for the next 20 minutes trying to take pictures of everything. It was a little disappointing because I would love to have spent a lot more time there and less time at the museum. For future reference, it is a good idea to talk to the guide at the very beginning of the tour to find out what he or she has in mind for an itinerary, especially if there is something you really want to spend a bit more time at.
Wheeling around the Acropolis was difficult in certain areas, but it was very doable with a little determination. The pathway from the Erechtheion to the front northwest corner of the Parthenon was quite easy. You could then go alongside the Parthenon towards the back, although you had to weave along the path to avoid some jagged rocks that were protruding from the path (). Once at the back northeast corner of the Parthenon, there was a series of really huge cobblestones that were quite rough (, ). In fact, the whole area behind the Parthenon was quite rough. It looks quite discouraging and perhaps even undoable to some, but I would encourage everybody to give it a try because the best views are from the other side! Just take it slow. I was tempted to not even try going over it, but in the end, I was glad I did. The cobblestones did not last for very long, and once you got past them there was a wheelchair ramp leading to a pathway that went along the other side of the Parthenon. This pathway, along the southern side of the Parthenon, was quite easy to wheel on and it extended all the way out to the front of the Parthenon (). The pathway also offered great panoramic views of Athens as there was only a short stone wall along the side of the path. The view at the end of the path was about the best view of the front of the Parthenon that a wheelchair user will get. Unfortunately, one can not just take a shortcut along the front of the Parthenon and head back to the elevator. The area immediately in front of the Parthenon was not accessible, so I had to backtrack and go all the way around again to get back to the elevator. It wasn't the smoothest ride I've ever had, but it was worth it. Our 20 minutes of free time at the acropolis turned into about 30, and the elevator operator was not happy about it as he was sitting there waiting for us, but that was too bad for him. I have no idea if I'll ever get back to Athens again, so I wasn't about to be shortchanged.
Our third day trip was to Olympia. This was by far the longest day tour of them all as it took four hours just to get to Olympia from our resort. Once there, we met up with another private guide for a tour of the area. We started by touring through the ruins where the ancient Olympic Games took place from 776 B.C until 393 A.D. The whole site was very accessible as the pathway consisted of a fine gravel. It was a very interesting tour as we walked through the ruins of the gymnasium, the temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus, and the stadium, where 45,000 people once gathered together to watch the track events. You can also stop in front of the altar of Hera, where the Olympic flame is currently lit every four years for the modern Olympic Games. After a walk through the site, we made our way next door to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. Here again, our guide took us on a tour through the museum and pointed out the most notable artifacts, including many artifacts that once stood in the Temple of Zeus.
After two hours of touring the ruins and the museum in Olympia, we stopped for an hour to eat supper. Then it was back to the van for the four-hour drive back to the resort. In all, we spent eight hours on the road that day for two hours of touring and an hour to eat supper. We left the resort at 10 a.m. and returned at 9:30 p.m. It was a long day, but in my opinion worth it. I found Olympia to be very interesting, and it was nice to get a chance to see it first-hand.
We didn’t have to travel nearly as far for our fourth road trip. I mentioned to the owner of the resort prior to coming to Greece that I wanted to spend some free time in Loutraki. However, we had no way of getting there since we did not rent an accessible van and there was no local accessible transportation. The sightseeing bus we used for all of our other tours came all the way from Athens, but it seemed a bit ridiculous to pay for the van to come 1.5 hours just to take us to and from Loutraki, which was only 20 minutes away. So, the owner suggested that we do a full day tour, including some free time in Loutraki and a couple hours touring ancient Corinth. It was a great idea, and in fact the tour of Corinth turned out to be one of our favorite tours of the entire trip.
Once again, we were picked up at our resort at 10 a.m. We started the day off with a couple hours of free time in Loutraki. It is a small tourist town lined with shops, restaurants, bars, a casino, and a massive beach. We spent the first little while walking along the main street browsing through all of the different shops. The curb cut situation was pretty good in town, although I had several instances where there were cars parked in front of a curb cut, so I had to backtrack to the previous street and cross the road to get around the car. The good news is that I did see a policeman giving one of these cars a ticket, and he looked equally as annoyed as I did that they were parked there. After we were shopped out, we made our way over to the beach. In the summertime, the beach is usually packed full of people. However, it was only May and the water was still cool, so the beach was pretty empty when we were there. The beach was actually six or 7 feet lower than the sidewalk, but there was an accessible ramp leading down from the sidewalk to the beach (, , ).
Next, we drove about 15 minutes down the road for a 2-hour tour of ancient Corinth. Once again, we met up with a private guide for the tour. We started off at the Archaeological Museum of Corinth. Like the other museums we had been to, this museum was accessible and it contained many artifacts from ancient Greece. The museum courtyard was particularly interesting. There, they had several headless Roman statues. During Roman times, the statues were used to portray the current emperor. When the emperor would change, they would simply change the head on the statue to the likeness of the new emperor.
After a short walk through the museum, we walked next door to the ruins of the ancient agora, or marketplace. We started out in front of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, which were impossible to miss. The columned structure is the first thing you see when you visit the area. From there, we walked past the ruins of the west shops and down into the center of the agora. In the center of the agora were the ruins of the bema, a large platform that was used in ancient times for public speeches. It was also used by Roman officials as a place of judgment. In fact, it was here where the Jews brought the apostle Paul before Roman officials to be charged with breaking the law. Those who are interested in the history of the apostle Paul will find a tour of ancient Corinth quite interesting as our guide had quite a bit to say about his journeys to Corinth.
Overall, I found the agora to be quite accessible. The surface was a fine gravel that was fairly easy to wheel around on. There were bumps and large rocks in certain places, but they were usually easy to avoid. I could not get right up to the Temple of Apollo, nor could I get down the steps to the Lechaion Road, which was the road that once ran from the city to the ancient port of Lechaion. However, I did see them from a fairly close distance, and as I mentioned, I was able to wheel around in the heart of the agora, so overall I found the access quite good.
Our final road trip was to Delphi. This was the second longest of the five road trips we took. We had to make a detour through Athens to pick up our guide, so it took us 3 1/2 hours to get to Delphi from our resort, and of course 3 1/2 hours to get back at night. Unfortunately, the ruins of ancient Delphi were not accessible at all. It is actually located on the side of a hill, and there were stairs everywhere. So, we started by driving to the top of a hill that overlooked the ancient city. There was an accessible pathway on the hill that led to an overlook which offered a great view of the ruins of the stadium of ancient Delphi. They opened this pathway in time for the 2004 Paralympic games. However, we were told that since then, it has rarely been used. We actually needed special permission to go there as the path was gated at the entrance, so our guide made the arrangements and we picked up an official from the Delphi Museum who escorted us to the path. Sure enough, as we walked down the path there was some grass and weed growth that was about 12 inches tall, but I had no problem at all wheeling through it (, ). However, as we got about three quarters of the way down the path, our escort suddenly stopped and told us that we could not go any further because there was a danger of snakes being on the path. He was very adamant that we could not go further because it was too dangerous, so I reluctantly turned around and went back. My friend was quite frustrated and did not buy the snake story at all, so he kept going to the end to get a picture. When he got back, he told me that we were practically at the end of the path before we turned around, and that I should have kept going because I was almost there and would not have had any trouble getting through the growth. It is even more frustrating because that was the closest opportunity that I (or any person in a wheelchair) would have to view some of the remains of ancient Delphi close up. As it turned out, I never really saw any of the remains at all, other than from a great distance. We drove over to the ruins later, but I had to wait at the main gate ()as my friends quickly toured through the site. There was a huge flight of stairs at the main entrance that leads to the ruins, so a wheelchair user could not see anything, even from the entrance.
Overall, I would have a hard time recommending a trip to Delphi for wheelchair users. The only accessible part of our tour was a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. The museum was completely accessible and contained many artifacts from ancient Delphi, which were really quite interesting. However, I am not sure it was worthwhile to spend 7 hours in a van just to visit a museum and catch a distant glimpse of the ancient city. Had I been able to get to the end of that pathway for a good overhead view of the ruins, I might have a different opinion.
Although our five days of road trips were over, we had one day of sightseeing left. Our final excursion was a one-day yacht cruise around the Saronic and Argolic Islands. We were picked up at our resort at 7 a.m. for the 1 1/2 hour drive to the port of Piraeus, near Athens. Upon arrival at the pier, the yacht was waiting for us. It had fairly good access. There was a long ramp at the back of the boat that pulled out onto the dock and allowed me to board, although it was a bit of work as the ramp was not quite flush with the dock (, ). Once inside the boat, there was a small area to move around in as well as a little eating area. There was a bathroom, but it was on the floor below. However, they had a lift that went down the steps and a wheelchair that you could use as the hallway was quite narrow (). It was sort of like an aisle chair that you see on an airplane.
The cruise turned out to be a bit disappointing unfortunately. It took 3 hours to sail to our first stop, which was a short 20 minute stop at a nice beach where everyone could jump out of the boat and go for a swim. That was great for the people who could actually go swimming, but not so fun for someone in a wheelchair who has to remain on the boat and wait for them.
We were somewhat surprised by the food situation as well. For the price we paid for the cruise, we thought that all food and meals were included. However, all we got were a few muffins in the morning and a bowl of fruit after the swimming stop. We had to buy our own lunch when we made our only stop of the day, a 90-minute stop at the island of Aegina. That was another frustrating thing. We thought we would be making stops at a few different islands where we would be able to get out and do a little sightseeing. However, we only stopped at one port, and the only thing we had time to do there was eat lunch because they didn't feed us on the boat. Then again, even if we wanted to do some sightseeing there, there was literally nothing to see. They purposely stopped at a "less touristy" place where there was nothing but a street of restaurants--no shops or stores anywhere. That did not make sense to me. After all, we are tourists--why wouldn't we want to do touristy things?
After the late lunch stop, we sailed straight back to the port in Athens to end the day, another long 3 hour stretch. So, we spent 6 hours sailing (with no narration from the crew telling us where we were or any interesting facts) for a 20 minute swim and a 90-minute stop to eat lunch. Of course, we arrived back at the port at around 7 p.m. without having eaten any supper (they sure did not offer us anything), and it was 9:30 p.m. by the time we got back to the resort, at which time we still had to make supper because we were all starving. Needless to stay, we were not in the best of moods at the end of the day.
The sailing experience was unfortunate because the whole concept is actually good...the itinerary was just bad. One day was simply not enough time to do what we did. It would be better to spend several days cruising around the islands where you can get on and off at different islands, which is actually something that this company offers. They are even coming out with a new boat that is specially designed for wheelchair access, including accessible bedrooms, an accessible bathroom, and a lift for access to the lower floor. So, while our day did not go well, it is work in progress, and hopefully they will come up with a better program.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of access we experienced on our trip to Greece. Not only was the resort fantastic, but the archaeological sites were far more accessible than I imagined they would be. I had read many stories about Greece being a mountainous country with inaccessible attractions, but in the end there was very little that I did not get to see. While the country still has a long way to go to improve accessibility, especially in the tourist haven of Athens where accessible hotels and taxis are in short supply, this resort clearly gives wheelchair travellers the opportunity to visit Greece in a way they never could before.
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